England haven’t won back to back Grand Slams since 1991 and 1992 back in the days of the 5 Nations, in fact nobody has won back to back Grand Slams in the 6 Nations era, so that indicates what a difficult task lays ahead for Eddie Jones’ men. It’s not entirely out of the question, after all where there’s an Eddie there’s a way (or something like that), but with them facing a potential Grand Slam decider in March at the Aviva, where they lost 19-9 last time it will be tough. Allied to the unfavourable schedule (France up first followed by a trip to Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the Championship) they will be without key players like Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson and most importantly Mako Vunipola who are long term injury concerns and there will also be doubts over James Haskell and Jack Clifford who were recently injured on club duty (and Dylan Hartley’s been banned since December, so who knows what state he’s in physically). The missing back-row players won’t be particularly missed if the tight 5 can provide a stable platform for them work from whoever England pick at 6, 7 and 8 will perform the tasks they are required to, Mike Williams may well make his debut but if your 4th choice is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 18 stone then there’s nothing wrong with squad depth. The question mark will be over whoever plays at loose-head because whoever it is won’t be able to do what Mako can, his ability to act as a first receiver in attack and disrupt opposition scrums will leave a whole in the game plan somewhere.
Since March 2013 the only team beat Ireland in a competitive match in Dublin have been the All Blacks, in 2013 with a heartbreaking last second conversion and in 2016 a rather banged up Ireland side lost 9-21 with the assistance of some rather lenient officiating, so it’s hard to see them losing to a Northern Hemisphere in the fortress-like Aviva this year. Ireland open up their campaign in Edinburgh where they were impressive 30 point winners last time out but their visits to Murrayfield are usually much closer affairs, they’ve won 3 and lost 3 going back to 2007 and those 6 games have been decided by a total of 29 points, so this may very well be the game that decides the Championship. Ireland’s other away game is in Cardiff in round 4 and Ireland haven’t won consecutive games in Cardiff since 2009, with the last 4 meetings being shared evenly but in their last visit to the Millennium Stadium they scored 5 tries on their way to a 22-35 victory, so they should be in confident mood as they cross the Irish Sea.
France are very much the surprise package of the 6 Nations, even to themselves. Last year they had a chance to prevent England’s Grand Slam in the final game in Paris but despite making more line breaks and conceding fewer penalties than their visitors their inability to cross the whitewash saw them fall to a 21-31 loss. England outscored France 11-3 in the last 29 minutes of that game and it raised the age old question of exactly how well conditioned are Guy Noves’ charges? Since the start of last year’s 6 Nations France have won 4 games out of 10 and just one of those 4 games were outside France, so recent history doesn’t provide mu hope for les bleus but in their last 2 games they pushed both Rugby World Cup finalists close with a 2 point loss to Australia followed a week later with a 5 point loss to the All Blacks, so maybe they’re about to turn the corner?
The rarely seen optimistic Welshman in me couldn’t be happier about the introduction of the bonus point system into this year’s 6 Nations, allied with the introduction of Alex King as an “attacking guru” if you believe some publications (skills coach to the rest of us). If any team in the Championship can benefit from the incentive to score tries it’s the team who had last year’s top try scorer George North out on the wing, Wales scored 17 tries last year (9 of them came in round 5 against Italy and since then they’ve largely been awful) so if they can summon up some confidence and the coaches actually allow them to play with freedom instead of strictly adhering to a prescriptive game plan that would confuse Professor Stephen Hawking there’s a chance they could upset a few apple carts in the coming weeks. The major talking point in Welsh recent rugby has been Alun-Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy from Sam Warburton (who hasn’t been in great nick for the Cardiff Blues but will almost certainly feature at 6 0r 7 for Wales), Jones has been touted as the Lions captain for the tour to New Zealand in the summer but in order for that to happen one would imagine he’d have to be playing in a successful Welsh team. Jones is not guaranteed a place on the tour at the moment with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Richie and Jonny Gray, Luke Charteris and Devin Toner all playing well so far this season (Jake Ball and Tim Swinson have also been in great form for their respective team’s but both face a fight for game time in the follow weeks), so he will need to stand out as both player and leader.
Scotland have seemingly developed the ability to play very well in Autumn Internationals but then crumble and eventually capitulate completely after Christmas, they have improved under Vern Cotter and under Jonathan Humphreys their forward pack has become one to be reckoned with, but this will be Cotter’s last season in charge of Scotland so exactly how that plays out remains to be seen. Since November 2014 they have run the All Blacks and Australia close at Murrayfield (losing by 8 to the All Blacks in 2014 and by a solitary point to the Wallabies last October) so with 3 games in front of their spirited supporters you have to believe they will have a say in who eventually wins the title.
Italy managed the incomprehensible combination of beating South Africa and losing to Tonga in consecutive weekends before Christmas so which Italian team turn up on a week by week basis is anybody’s guess! Connor O’Shea must have believed that he was making progress after they defeated the Springboks by 2 points but having made a few changes to play a team ranked below them they conspired to lose to the Islanders by the same total. The arrival of Dr. Brendan Venter as their permanent defence coach may solidify the sometimes unorganised Italian defensive line and with Carlo Canna looking like the 10 they’ve been missing since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003 the Italian’s may well provide an upset or 2 during the next 2 months, they have beaten France in 2 of their last 3 meetings on home soil, so that game could be fascinating and Wales face a tricky start away to the Azzurri in round 1, they have struggled against Italy before and although they haven’t lost to them in Rome since 2007 they will come up against an Italian pack who will be desperate to rediscover the form that vanquished the Springboks.
Personally I’m not sure how much difference the bonus point system will have on the tournament, particularly at the top of the table. Head Coaches will still be more focussed on winning games than they will be on throwing the ball around wildly and chasing 1 extra point, there’s a very real chance that the team who wins the Wooden Spoon will be a team who records no bonus point’s and that could mean that a team who loses a few games by fewer than 7 points could finish above a team who wins one game (which would be a bit weird). There’s a very strong possibility that Ireland will follow up their famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago with a second Joe Schmidt Grand Slam (which would make Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions Head Coach look a bit weird too). Last season I predicted that the Grand Slam wouldn’t be won and Eddie Jones proceeded to show that with a decent Head Coach and a fully fit squad it’s almost easy to build momentum in a short tournament and this year England are still the bookies favourites to remain undefeated, so who knows? Certainly not me.